State might cut budget for career ladder program

Friday, July 31, 2009 | 4:41 p.m. CDT; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 1, 2009

COLUMBIA — Junior high choral director James Melton has come to rely on the paychecks he receives through Career Ladder.

So he was "extremely disappointed" to hear state funding for the program might be cut.

“The really disappointing part for me is that I jumped levels this year, and now I’ll basically be getting the same I was getting before" if funding is cut, said Melton, who teaches at West Junior High School.

Career Ladder is a program which awards teachers for their achievements and the extra time they spend outside of their contract hours

Assistant Majority Floor Leader Sen. Gary Nodler and Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, wrote a letter to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on June 15 saying the General Assembly cannot promise state funding for the program. Local school administrators were notified of the letter this past week.

The letter said:

"It is the intent of the General Assembly that the FY (fiscal year) 2010 appropriation for Career Ladder will be the last appropriation made in arrears for this program.

"The General Assembly cannot assure that participants in the Career Ladder Program for the 2009-2010 school year and beyond will be supported by state appropriation, and these potential participants should be notified of these changes."

Last year, 348 school districts and nearly 18,000 teachers participated in the program, said Jim Morris, director of public information for the Education Department. The state provided about $37 million to support the program.

There is a possibility Career Ladder funding could become available in future years, if state revenue allows. This funding would be distributed before the school year instead of the current system of distributing funds after the school year, the letter said.

Nodler, R-Joplin, said Friday there is no opposition to the program. It's just a matter of being able to pay back the district since state revenue is down.

“If you are going to do this, do this in a way that you won't make promises to teachers that you can't keep,” said Nodler, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Columbia's Career Ladder program is funded by both the state and School District. The district pays 60 percent and the state pays 40 percent of the program's funding, said Linda Quinley, director of business services for Columbia Public Schools.

The School District pays the Career Ladder checks in May, and the state pays the school back in July, Quinley said. This past year, the School District paid participants and received about 35 or 36 percent back from the state. Quinley said the state used  stimulus funding to make the payment, so she doesn’t think the district will get its full 40 percent. Now, the district will have to make up that difference in its budget.

Quinley said the program's state funding was also included in the budget for the 2009-2010 school year. The administration and the School Board will have to meet and decide what will happen with the program, Quinley said. The district was expecting about $1.4 million from the state for next year.

Quinley predicted three options, but said administrators might discuss others as well.

The first option would pay teachers the 60 percent that the budget already allotted and require only 60 percent of the extra work. Or, the district could go about business as usual and hope it receives the money next July. The district could also decide to postpone the program until the state has made its decision.

Participants were notified and will be the first to know when the district knows more, Quinley said.

Lee Expressive Arts Elementary second-grade teacher Marilyn Andre realizes the economic situation across the country, but hopes the state will come through and fund its 40 percent.

Andre said she doesn’t know any teachers who don’t support a classroom without spending some their own money, which is why she liked the extra money from the Career Ladder program.

Andre, who has taught in the district for 37 years, is on level three of the program and often exceeds the extra 120 hours outside the classroom required. Like Melton, Andre  plans to continue her extra work, like her after-school poetry writing class, even without funding.

“I would hope that the program would continue to be funded by the School District even if the state doesn’t give their 40 percent,” she said.

There are three levels in the Career Ladder program. Each has different requirements, and participants at level one, two and three receive $1,500, $3,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Teachers are eligible for the program if they meet certain requirements like hours beyond their bachelor’s degree and filling out a responsibility plan. The district started Career Ladder in 1987, and the program has grown every year. There were 687 participants in the 2007-08 school year.

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